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One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
The Okaloosa County Commission is by definition dysfunctional, corrupt or both. Any governmental unit that believes a 47% budget increase over the space of a mere five years is defensible has rocks in their head. That the Commission managed to paint over this by drawing down reserves when the cause was not a one-year hit from an event like a hurricane (which is what reserves are for) ought to be treated as criminal corruption and result in the incarceration of everyone involved.
The "escalating" expenses in the budget this year alone are primarily (1) reserve restoration (that is, paying back what the commission took through gross mismanagement), (2) adding to said reserves (possibly arguably ok), (3) more law enforcement (big shock) and (4) insane health care cost escalations.
If Okaloosa County wishes to improve its economic attractiveness it must address these issues along with the outrageous actions and inactions by the Commission not only over previous years, but on a forward basis.
Like many if not most counties Okaloosa County's ad-valorem tax revenue almost exclusively goes to the Sheriff's Office (and related expenditures, such as the county jail.) This is not unusual; there are in fact counties where more than 100% of ad-valorem revenue goes to law enforcement. If you're wondering why county sheriffs like to write tickets, well, you just figured it out since traffic fines of course offset some of their ad-valorem tax demand.
But in this county, as in other tourist areas, there's a problem: The majority of services provided by the Sheriff's Office, most of which are quite-mundane (e.g. traffic accidents, etc) involve and are provided to tourists. The issue is that tourists pay almost zero ad-valorem tax; while if they rent someone's condo that person does pay the tax they only occupy the building for a tiny part of the year and thus on a pro-rata basis, that is, on a per-capita/year basis, they pay almost nothing.
Yet on a per-capita/year basis tourists form the majority of the Sheriff Department's load.
The county could have avoided a very large percentage of the millage increase in this particular case had it developed a taxation system that placed upon the users of these services the burden of paying for them. In fact, if the Commission had done so years ago there would be no need for millage increases at all; instead we'd be running a material surplus from ad-valorem revenue and would also have long ago reached the desired level of reserves!
Instead the county has a "bed tax" that is locked up for tourism "development" (read: advertising and promotion.) That "lockbox" currently has a large surplus and yet not one dollar of it can be used to fund the operating cashflow deficiency in the Sheriff's department caused by tourism. Since our condos and hotels are in fact currently at capacity during the season there is also no point to spending money on additional promotion since there's nowhere to put additional tourists -- never mind that if we did the deficiency in the Sheriff's department would simply grow larger.
In response what the Commission has done is demand of residents that we pay more property tax.
This imbalance is a direct consequence of a poorly-designed taxing system that has shifted the cost of law enforcement brought to the area by tourism onto the backs of those who live here year-round. Rather than change the taxation regime so as to shift those costs onto those who consume the services the Commission instead decided to screw the residents and continue to subsidize the tourists with resident tax money, an effective act of theft-by-conversion through the operation of law and ordinance!
If the Commission wishes the residents of the county to embrace and approve of tourism in our area they need to stop screwing the residents and landowners whom they need to provide goods and services to said tourists.
The current situation is exactly as if said tourists directly broke into resident homes and stole money from them with the Sheriff's Department providing "muscle" for the thieves.
The Sheriff, for his part, is well aware of this and in fact he's actively involved in that cost-shifting through the way he practices law enforcement. Sheriff Larry Ashley does this intentionally and he knows damn well exactly what he's doing -- and why.
To take just one example on "heavy tourist weekends" (e.g. Memorial Day, Labor Day, etc) the Sheriff's Office typically sets up a "safety" checkpoint somewhere intended to snare DUIs (and other offenses, of course.) This may be defensible since DUIs spike on said weekends but the Sheriff's Office always places that checkpoint at locations where few to zero tourists ever travel, such as on Mountain Drive instead of right in the exit path from popular tourist drinking locations like AJs on 98 and the complex of tourist-focused nightclubs and bars at the fishing pier on Okaloosa Island. The most-recent example was a checkpoint on Beal Parkway that is not on the path to or from any frequented tourist accommodation from any drinking establishment but is on the path home for many local residents from local-frequented bars and nightspots. As such while they do catch people driving drunk with these checkpoints a ridiculously-overrepresented percentage are locals since the tourists happily drive drunk down the roads the Sheriff intentionally does not concentrate on and the checkpoint consumes resources that could otherwise be used to patrol such areas WHERE THERE ARE LOTS OF DRUNK TOURISTS. While DUI is a problem for everyone and I applaud getting any dangerously-intoxicated person off the road to place such "checkpoints" where nearly zero tourists will encounter them but locals will leaves the largest component of risk for DUI accidents and death on those weekends intentionally under-policed.
This practice has been undertaken for my entire 17 years of living here and yet not a single mention of it has ever been made by the County Commission that I am aware of. The local media has also ignored it, of course. In my years here I cannot recall one time that I've seen a checkpoint at either the Harbor area or near the fishing pier -- both routinely full of drunk tourists on a holiday weekend.
As a strong and positive signal to the Sheriff's Department the Commission could make clear that the department will have all funding increases denied and in fact will have its budget cut by 10% a year until it starts behaving in a fashion in its policing that matches the load imposed on the department by the various groups demanding services.
This is just one of many examples but it's one of the most-glaring, obvious and easily corrected without spending a single additional nickel. Further, for each tourist caught DUI as opposed to a local resident the local economic impact is actually positive on balance since (1) they won't wreck someone else's property (and maybe someone else's life) thereby imposing costs on residents, (2) the court system collects a large fine and costs (including quite-possibly enough to cover whatever incarceration term is imposed, if any) which goes back into the county coffers and (3) the consequential unemployment (and thus lower or zero future spending for some period of time) of said person, if it occurs, harms some other economy instead of ours.
The Commission can also work to redesign the portion of the county and local tax structure they control with the express intent (and if necessary votes of the citizens) so as to place the burden that tourism puts on the Sheriff's Office entirely on said tourists at the same time. But, I caution residents, half-steps that are not linked in an indivisible way are not acceptable.
If the commission will not place the costs tourists impose on the Sheriff's Office on them and insist that the Sheriff direct his enforcement activities toward those causing the service volume increases we who live here ought to contemplate being rude as hell to said tourists and try to get them to leave as that will both improve our quality of life and decrease our taxes!
There are plenty of other issues in the Sheriff's Department, mostly revolving around effectiveness in policing. The county jail is currently 200 people over nominal capacity yet the question not asked is why do we keep seeing increasing incarceration rates? We're obviously doing it wrong both in terms of real economic progress (employed, happy people rarely commit jailable offenses.) When it comes to law enforcement tactics instead of demanding that Sheriff and his deputies change their tactics so as to reduce crime that leads to incarceration (and thus decrease both the number of people in jail and the need to hire more deputies) the Commission instead votes to throw money at the problem, hire more cops, buy more law-enforcement hardware and contemplate building a bigger jail while taxing the productive members of society, in some cases probably to the point that they no longer deem their effort worth it and thus turn to crime!
In other words the Commission's actions, on the margin, actually create criminals who then not only need to be locked up they victimize the productive members of our society as well.
On the revenue side the Commission wishes to pass a sales surtax, and plans to put such before the public later this year or early next year. Such a surtax, if we are to approve it, must come with permanent and enforceable rollbacks that are of exactly equal budgetary impact in millage that occur before the sales tax is imposed. The point of such must be to shift burden to the user of services to the extent we can, not simply add revenue. I remind you that a tax is a tax is a tax; whether I pay it in a property tax levy or at the local store makes zero difference at the end of the month when it comes to the impact on my wallet. Further, the anticipated sales tax revenue is grossly more than the property tax levy increase -- that is, there was no reason to pass the property tax increase EXCEPT to screw the residents given this sales tax proposal.
The second and probably most-important issue both retrospectively and on a forward basis, however, is one that's much easier than redesigning the county's taxation structure or even pressuring the Sheriff to do the right thing.
It revolves around the same issue everyone else in the country -- not just Okaloosa County -- has today.
That, of course, is the insane escalation of health care costs over the previous three decades which has no indication that it will slow down or reverse. Indeed, the Commission's presentation featured no less than three line items comprising a large part of the increase in the millage that resulted from the insane expansion of health-care cost, including a 15% year-over-year increase in county employee health insurance premiums. The Commission, ever-mindful of its employees at the expense of everyone else in the county who are also being slammed by the very same costs included a bonus to be paid to county employees for the explicit purpose of assisting with their health expenses. Another line item was for two incidents at the jail in which the county was obligated to provide care, and which totaled nearly a half million dollars!
Out of six million and change to be raised via the millage that's no small potatoes.
So why doesn't Okaloosa County act to fix the health care issue? Why, for example, did the Commission years ago support and get passed via referendum the "ALS" system in our county -- an upgrade to the county ambulance service that is both quite expensive and, on the merits by one study actually produces worse outcomes by delaying transport to hospitals in order to "intervene on-site" instead.
Needless to say the medical "community" doesn't like studies such as this and relentlessly attacks them whenever and wherever they appear. The problem is that an actual out-of-hospital cardiac arrest has a crappy survival rate in the first place so any "analysis" of same is probably specious at best. Facts are facts and it's simply this: You have about 4 minutes after a cardiac arrest before the odds are that you're either dead or severely and permanently impaired; if someone does not provide CPR, use an AED (if it works for the disordered rhythm you have) or get you into an actual hospital OR in that amount of time you're almost-certain to die. Since simple response times (remember, it's from the arrest, not from the time of the 911 call!) are typically more than 4 minutes simply to figure out exactly where you are, what's happened, get the word to the EMS folks and get the truck moving, well.... you do the math.
Here is the ugly reality nobody wants to deal with honestly: If you arrest in the hospital you have an approximate 20% chance of survival long enough to be discharged -- that is, to leave the hospital in something other than a hearse. That's if you arrest in the hospital folks. If you arrest outside of a hospital your odds are roughly six percent. With such dismal base figures it's easy to scream "20% improvement!" while the actual change is just over one percent in survival rate, which makes any such claim when used to support multi-million dollar expenditures on salaries and equipment an outrageous and public fraud.
The more-damning evidence in that same study on ALS .vs. BLS services, however, is found in severe trauma situations (e.g. severe car accidents, etc.) There BLS also outperformed -- in other words, all that "intervention" is for crap compared to getting the victim to a hospital now in that it actually harms and even kills people. But all that "intervention" sure as hell is expensive, it was sold as a "great thing" here that would save Granny and now we're stuck with it -- and with the crazy costs, even though the "upgrade" in service is a net negative when it comes to survival rates.
Who on the Commission has brought this up in the budget hearings? I note that the ALS EMS system was one of the cited issues this year. I'll answer that for you: Nobody. Why not? I raised hell at the time the referendum was being debated in the county, pointing out that the simple math on out-of-hospital cardiac events were rarely survived irrespective of assistance and as such the proposal was a massive fraud upon the public and was called all sorts of names, including by the current paramedics who were electioneering 1 foot beyond the minimum legal distance at every fucking polling place in the county. Why?
Big salary increases coming their way for full time 24x7 coverage, that's why. They didn't like being called on the fact that they were -- and still are -- robbing the public.
The Commission should put facts before the public and place a referendum out there to get rid of ALS in the County. It's worthless on a comparative basis and expensive. It was sold to the public via an outrageous and false campaign of misinformation promulgated by the very employees who benefited from it and nobody in the Commission took them on. The Commission can fix this right now and it damn well should.
But this is not the only place the Commission could act when it comes to Health spending. The Commission could put a stop to nearly all of the financial shenanigans that make health care so expensive in Okaloosa County.
The Commission can act to do it tomorrow.
Okaloosa County, like most counties, issues business licenses. You must have one to conduct business of any sort. I have a business license because I do contract computer work from time to time, among other business interests I have and may wish to engage in. The law says I must pay a license fee and have a nice certificate from the county displayed where I "primarily" do said business (it's in my bedroom, right near my computer.)
The county, of course, places conditions on said license. So long as those conditions are non-discriminatory that's perfectly legal. Among others I had to get a sign-off from the planning commission documenting that, for example, I understood that it was illegal to post any sort of signage or have customers come to my house. That's reasonable; I live in an area that is zoned for homes, not storefronts. Some occupations have further requirements including state-operated licensing (e.g. cosmetologists, etc.)
The County could largely solve the health care mess in this county by conditioning business licenses, which every doctor's office, dentist, hospital, clinic and pharmacy must have just like every other business, on the following three simple points:
1. You must post prices for all goods and services you sell so customers can see them before agreeing to goods or services being delivered.
2. You must charge everyone the same price for like kind and quantity, with allowance made only for reasonable differentials in the actual cost of delivery of same, difference in classification of customer or collection costs associated with payment. A differential of 10% from the posted cash price shall be conclusively deemed reasonable.
3. Upon presentation of proof that a business has violated (1) or (2) to the County Commission the business license in question is revoked and may not be reapplied for by the same principals and/or at the same location until a period of one year passes.
The 10% differential allows for, as an example, giving a 10% discount to Seniors. Or to the Military. Or, for that matter, to charge a 10% fee for open invoicing or third-party (e.g. insurance) billing as opposed to cash on the table. All of this is reasonable. But what this requirement would instantly put to a stop is the extremely common practice of charging someone two, three, five or ten times as much money for the exact same good or service simply because they have one particular insurance coverage over another, or worse, no insurance at all.
The very day that this requirement is put in place every single medical center, doctor's office and hospital has to start competing for business because they must post prices and may not screw one person for 10x the charge they bill out to someone else.
You can see the difference in price that merely posting prices and charging everyone the same price has at the Surgery Center of Oklahoma which posts all of its prices and charges everyone the same price.
The prices posted there are typically roughly one fifth of those charged by hospitals -- including the hospitals in Okaloosa County.
If the County Commission adopts such an ordinance then in order to operate a medical clinic, dental office, pharmacy or other business that provides medical care (or anything else for that matter) there must be a posted set of prices and everyone must pay the same price. To operate a business in this county you must have a business license.
If the county adopts such an ordinance medical costs will drop like a stone -- to about 20% of what they are now.
How do I know this will happen? Because it's being done right now at the Surgery Center of Oklahoma and that's the result -- prices that are roughly one fifth that charged in conventional hospitals.
The result will be a permanent resolution of health-cost escalation for all persons in the county. That includes but certainly is not limited to those who work for the county government.
Not only will the budget problem be solved for the county it will also be solved for the residents of the county, including most-especially those who have been allegedly screwed blind by North Okaloosa Medical Center, which, I remind you, is in Commissioner Boyles' district. I further note that particular medical center is currently being sued as a class-action for this exact issue -- differential pricing that wildly screws some people compared to others.
I wonder if the jail's medical cost issue arises at least in part from the same medical center? The jail is awfully close to that hospital; if they provided the care to said inmates has the county joined and sought to expand the suit? Did the County get hammered with a $400,000 medical bill due to differential pricing that they could have prevented from occurring and which screwed them -- that they now expect us as county residents to pay for? If so why haven't they already adopted an ordinance to permanently put a stop to that crap and gone after the providers in question?
I have no problem with posting a price for my time as a consultant or bidding out work with a per-hour rate. Every attorney in town does exactly that. Tapworks posts their beer prices on a chalkboard, easily visible to everyone who comes in. The car repair center posts their prices; they have a shop rate per-hour, and a flat-rate book for everything they do. AMC Movies in the Destin Commons posts their prices for a ticket, for popcorn, and for a glass of wine. Every store in the area posts prices on the shelf or on the item, from Walmart to Whole Foods to Best Buy to Kilwins. The gas station has a big sign out front telling you exactly how much per-gallon their gasoline costs so you can choose whether to stop there or go across the street. Your Gulf Power or Chelco bill has a per-kWH price on it as does your Okaloosa Gas bill per therm. Every local restaurant has a menu with prices on it. The local hotels and inns all have posted prices, most are on the Internet and all will tell you exactly what a room will cost when you call them or walk through the front door before you are obligated to pay. Every one of those firms charges everyone exactly the same price for the same thing bought at the same time, other than the few instances in which you get 10% off for being an active-duty military member, a Senior Citizen, or if you get a small discount for cash commensurate with the decreased cost of taking it as opposed to credit cards.
There's nothing about such an ordinance that prohibits someone from charging a different price at a different time or changing prices as a merchant so chooses. I booked my hotel for the recent eclipse a year in advance and got a decent price. Everyone else who booked that same day paid the same price. If you booked a room a week before the eclipse, if you could find one, I bet it cost more, and probably a lot more. That's perfectly fine and legal. What wouldn't be legal -- and is simply not acceptable -- is charging one person $500 for a hotel room because they drove a Porsche up to the front door while someone in a Chevy gets charged $100.
Condition all business licenses on this requirement and the medical problem goes away in an afternoon and so does the county budget problem. It goes away not just for the County but for every one of our residents.
At the same time Okaloosa County becomes the place to start and run a business -- not just in Florida either, but nationally.
In short this is the "small action" answer that applies the very same solution I've advocated for on a national basis -- and it will work, because we already know it does via the example found in Oklahoma.
The County Commission has a solution to both its budget issues and a means to radically boost economic growth within the grasp of the commission and the citizens who live here. There is no need for a millage increase; indeed, millage could be radically cut were this ordinance to be put in place as the additional economic activity would boost tax receipts to an enormous degree.
Pass this ordinance at your next meeting if you have any desire to actually solve the problem -- not just for the County budget but for those who you allegedly serve as well.
If you don't, or won't do the above then expect trouble with retaining your office in the next election. I'm tired of government officials that refuse to address problems and simply throw the people's money around they extract by force especially when they personally profit from market bubbles and churn they foster and promote.